6 June 2024

“It’s a difficult operation and we’ve tried to do our best,” Thai ambassador to Sri Lanka, H.E. Poj Harnpol told Thai PBS World in an interview before what is being called “D-Day”, when the ailing Thai elephant, Sak Surin, will be flown home for proper medical treatment and therapy this Sunday.

Sak Surin, also known as Muthu Raja in Sri Lanka, in his early 30s, has been “in transit” at the Sri Lankan National Zoo for 6 months, after the Thai government found out about his poor physical condition while staying at a temple to serve in holy ceremonies.

The Petition

Last year, Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE), an NGO in Sri Lanka, claimed that Sak Surin was being mistreated and abused. They sent a petition to the Thai Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, copied to the Thai embassy in Colombo and other organisations concerned.

Sak Surin was a gift, one of three goodwill ambassadors from Thai government to the Sri Lankan government more than 20 years ago. Asked if Thailand has any pre-set conditions or list of things that the recipients have to do with the elephants, the ambassador said that the general rule is that they must take good care of the animal. There are three tuskers in Sri Lanka “and it happened that Sak Surin was quite unfortunate. The other two are okay.” Said the Ambassador.

When visiting the elephant late last year, the embassy discovered that Sak Surin was in quite a poor state, but the embassy lacked expertise in the veterinary field. So, they asked the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to provide a team of experts and veterinarians to travel to Sri Lanka to assess the pachyderm.

After lengthy discussions, it was concluded that it would be better to bring the tusker back to Thailand for medical treatment and therapy.

Sak Surin familiarizes himself with the crate especially made for the flight home.

Collective Effort

Awareness of animal welfare issues in Sri Lanka was limited before the Sak Surin incident, but this particular case has become of great public interest and that brings greater awareness.

The ambassador said Thailand has been discrete, for the benefit of the elephant. “We work closely with Sri Lankan government agencies. From the people involved, of course, we listen to all concerns. We know that the issue has been rather dramatized or sensationalised, but we have a clear aim, to provide the animal with the best care for its well-being. I would say that, from the top level, we have been through the president’s office, the prime minister’s office, coordinators, the wildlife department, zoos and gardens. I mean we knocked on every door.”

“We have never got involved in finger pointing. It’s just unfortunate it happened. We work positively, to make things better.”

Fit to fly

You may ask why not send (the elephant) back earlier? He was in musth (increased testosterone levels) and was not fit to fly back then,” the ambassador explained.

The elephant has a stiff front leg. He has to place a lot of his weight on the right leg, which had two swollen abscesses oozing pus six months ago. Now, the wounds seem to have healed. He still limps when he walks though.

The ambassador said that the most critical point is that, since Sak Surin has been trained to be familiar with the crate (for the flight), he is showing no signs of resistance or panic.

The rehearsal on the evening of June 28, 2023.

Rehearsal for Sak Surin

The transport operation was rehearsed on Wednesday night, using the same route from the zoo to the airport, with a trailer carrying a weight as heavy as Sak Surin. With the road conditions in Sri Lanka, the Ambassador said they have to use low-base trailer and will have to go very slowly.

His Excellency recalled details of adjustments needed on the route to the airport during the rehearsal “The zoo had to trim the trees. We found one pothole. Later, the local authority filled that in for us. The airport authority had to uninstall a barrier, but will reinstall it later.

“I must say, once again, it’s all a collective effort by experts in their fields. It’s a difficult operation and we’ve tried to do our best.  We do have to pray for the big day, for a safe journey for Sak Surin.

By Tulip Naksompop Blauw